Shasta High School’s Madrigal Dinner
By Laura Christman
Story by Laura Christman
Photos courtesy of Shasta High School
EVERY DECEMBER, the days of yore reverberate through a stone church in Redding as Shasta High School takes audiences back to the 16th century via its popular Madrigal Dinner.
The dinner, staged over eight nights at Pilgrim Congregational Church, is layered in tradition (selling out performances is one of them). A king and queen welcome guests to the candlelit “castle” for an evening of music, dinner and a bit of fun from the jester and other performers in the Royal Court.
“We work hard to try to do something that is really positive – to touch people’s hearts,” says Shasta High Choral Director Gavin Spencer.
“I think it is really a unique opportunity for both the people in it, and the people who come to see it,” says Amanda Hartt, a senior and one of the Madrigal Singers.
Costumed students stay true to the period, speaking in Ye Olde English, telling jokes to guests, asking about their journey to the castle and questioning them about bewildering contraptions like cellphones or wristwatches.
“It’s as if they have entered this world. We keep them engaged so it feels like instead of just watching something, they are part of something. I think that is the real charm of the dinner,” Amanda says.
Guests toast with wassail (sparkling cider) and feast on Cornish game hens, vegetables, rolls and figgy pudding while students perform.
The 23 students who make up the Madrigal Singers are enrolled in a seventh-period class added onto their regular school day. Rehearsals – run by the student queen – are on top of that. As December nears, the rehearsal schedule increases in intensity, converging with finals and, for seniors, college applications.
“At some point it is probably five hours a day,” says senior Kinley Hartigan, adding, “We all signed up for this.”
“It takes a lot of time and dedication,” agrees junior Max Fowler. “But it pays off. If I can get someone to smile, for even a second, it will make my day.”
Along with the dinner performances, the Madrigal Singers visit schools, retirement homes and perform at community events. The selections they sing – a mix of sacred and secular songs – are musically complex and some lyrics are in French, German or Latin.
“You learn a lot really fast,” says junior Erin Woodward. “There will be times when we all will be singing different rhythms and different lines – eight different sections producing at different times. It sounds absolutely amazing.”
Mastering the music requires students work as a team. They gain poise and confidence, Spencer says. “It’s not just singing the notes … It’s about giving a part of yourself to the audience.”
In addition to the Madrigal Singers, the dinner features some 25 student instrumentalists under the direction of Shasta High Instrumental Music Director Lou Polcari. And approximately 60 more students sing, serve, host and perform.
Madrigal Dinner connects school with community. Parent and community volunteers power the production. Whether the task is publicity, security, table centerpieces or even butter, salt and pepper, there’s a committee with someone in charge. Fifty to 75 volunteers help each night, Spencer notes.
Volunteer Rita Simpson designs and sews dresses, tunics, bubble pants and headpieces, working with the velvets, brocades, silks and other fabrics in the tower of the Shasta Union High School District office building next to Shasta High. She began volunteering when her daughter was a ninth-grader in the production and kept on stitching. This is her 21st year. She typically makes three or four costumes each year to replace ones ready to be retired. This time it was five – including elaborate new garb for the queen.
“I love it. I love the kids. And I love creating,” she says.
In its 39th year, Madrigal Dinner was started by former Shasta High music teacher Ken Putnam, who was also choir director at Pilgrim Congregational Church. The church, with its stone walls and impressive acoustics, is an important part of the dinner.
“The church is the perfect venue,” Spencer says. “It really does have a castle-like feeling.”
Taking on the cherished dinner in 2002 following Putnam’s retirement seemed a bit daunting but Spencer says, “By the time I got here, it was kind of a machine.”
The Madrigal Dinner is something many families look forward to each Christmas season. On closing night, after the final song of the final performance is finished, Spencer invites Madrigal Dinner alumni to join the current cast. The room is soon encircled by song and filled with affection for a community tradition that continues on. •
Shasta High School Madrigal Dinner • Dec. 5-8 and 12-15
Pilgrim Congregational Church, 2850 Foothill Blvd., Redding
Tickets $45 • www.shastahighchoir.com